25 Jan 2013

The selkie and the sea.

southern down 4

When I was little I had a story tape about a Selkie.  A selkie lives in the sea as a seal but sheds its skin to come up on land as a human.  This story was about a selkie, a beautiful woman on land and a lithe seal in the water.  Mostly she lived in the sea, she had a selkie-husband and selkie-pups who played amongst the shoals of fish and danced in the sprays of the storms.  
Sometimes though, she would come onto the land, shed her sleek, black skin on the sand and pace the shore line, feeling the sun on her back or the rain on her face.  Sometimes her children joined her and dug their toes into the sand but mostly she came alone.

southern down 2

One day a fisherman was on the shore.  He was a pleasant man, simple but lonely.  He had been standing a long time, his toes were cramping in his gum-boots and his eyes lashes were heavy with salt. He saw the dog like face of a seal bobbing in the shadows and watched, dead still and silent.  The seal dog danced and arced through the water and eventually, with a bound, hauled itself onto the dense sand.  He watched the selkie-woman emerge from the black skin, which she gently folded and placed on a rock.  He watched her pace down the shoreline, he could feel her enjoyment of the cold sand between her toes and the smell of the beached seaweed.  He watched until she unfolded her skin, now dry and velveteen, redressed and, with a small ripple, disappeared beneath the water.

southern down

The fisherman was addicted.  He went to the beach and stood in the same sheltered alcove every day.  Eventually he stopped bringing his line and bait, he just stood and waited for the selkie-woman with her long black hair. 
His perseverence eventually paid.  On a hazy morning, she made an appearance.  She danced and arced through the water, she hauled herself onto the dense sand, she emerged from the black skin, which she gently folded and placed on the rock.  She began to pace down the shoreline, enjoying the sand between her toes.  
Without even thinking why, the fisherman moved from his vantage point and went over to the skin.  He touched and stroked it, he bought it to his face, it was cold and smelt of animal, then he put it in his pocket and waited for the selkie-woman to turn back.

Without her skin she could not return to the water.  The fisherman was kind to her, he comforted her in her grief, his arm tender and loving around her shoulders.  He took her back to his small house, he gave her food and tea and gazed at her with adoration.  He loved her mane of hair and her wild eyes, he loved her voice which soothed like whale song and he loved her affinity with the ocean, knowing the days that the fish would be close and the days where they would be too far for his rod.  And yet, despite the love, he kept her selkie-skin locked tightly inside a chest.

southern down 5

After a year she married him.  He was all she had in this new, land-based life and he truly loved her.  But by night she dreamt she heard her selkie-family calling from behind the wave, crying salty sea tears.  Mostly she was a quiet and sensitive wife, but each evening she begged and pleaded with him to be allowed to look at her selkie-skin, to simply touch it once.  She cried and screamed, she paced and raged, she begged and bargained but on this subject, although no other, she would not get her way.

Five years later, in the gloom that only comes with the false night of storm clouds, a storm hit the coast with a terrible might.  A small and tatty boat could be seen from the fisherman's window, struggling to pull into the cove and the fisherman could imagine their mouths open in silent shouts for help that could not be heard over the screaming wind.  Without hesitation, because truly he was a kind man, the fisherman pulled on his boots and his overcoat and ran towards the coast to help, leaving a key on the table.  The selkie-woman picked up the key and, stroking its rusted contours, realised her decision.  
She kissed her small human children on their sleeping foreheads and then, disappeared back into the ocean.

The fisherman came back to a house with the candles still lit and babes still in bed and an old wooden chest open in the corner.

Life for the fisherman did not change a lot, but sometimes. looking out the window to the sea, he could see his children playing with a large black seal with a dog like face.  Sometimes he would wave but the seal never waved back.

southern down 3

When I was little, my mother took me and my brother endlessly to the coast and we paddled, or rock-pooled, or went for long bracing walks, no matter what the weather was like.  Sometimes I used to worry that she was a selkie and one day she would disappear.  I even checked in her drawers once to see if I could find her hidden skin.  


  1. Just beautiful. The story itself and your way of retelling it!

  2. I especially love this because of the way that you ended it, "I even checked in her drawers once to see if I could find her hidden skin." It's so magical.

  3. This is actually a family legend of my ancestors in Ireland. My grandmother told us this story frequently as children.

    If you enjoyed it too, you would really love The Secret of Roan Inish movie. :)

  4. This was such a lovely Sunday morning read :) Thank you so much for sharing.

  5. Such a lovely story! So touching and personal (: